IBM Information on Demand Conference (Part 1)

By Ellen M. Martin

For me (lapsed scientist, MBA, life science communications), the most memorable moment at IBM’s November 2013 Information on Demand conference happened at the outset of a Pure Systems (formerly known as Netezza – IBM’s commercial Big Data platform). It was at a beginners’ technical training session I was brave enough to undertake.

The instructor, a sweet young Chinese-Canadian with a rural Western Canada accent, made an announcement to the group of about 20 geeks (including me): “We won’t even bother with the GUI because it’s simply intuitive  but we’ll go directly to the command-line interface.”

Oops. Before this class, I had typed maybe 100 command lines in my life! Nevertheless, I forged ahead, made it through the training without shame, and picked up practical knowledge about the IT engineering that supports Big Data.

This experience typified one side of a rather schizoid conference.

The Technical Presentations

There were the technical sessions, with presentations about real-world use-cases for many IBM Big Data hardware and software products. I focused on the IBM Pure Systems (formerly Netezza) Big Data products.

Of the sessions I attended, the REI Co-op presentation was a particular stand-out, not only from a PowerPoint perspective. It was a fine example of the Steve Jobs school of presenting: polished speaker, humorous photos using outdoor sports as metaphors, interspersed with slides showing real data and real machines. Conversely, it also explained how REI uses Big Data to manage inventory across multiple stores, predict sales trends, provide more responsive customer service, and save money. Not only that, it makes life easier for their people in IT and Marketing by replacing a maxed-out ancient database system with Netezza machines and IBM software.

The other technical sessions were not as slick, but many conveyed both the challenges and the accomplishments of companies using Big Data to create at least IT value. Even the healthcare presentations in this section were focused on making things work. For the healthcare companies (mostly payors or payor/providers), the big challenges for IT are in moving from managing transactions (payments, encounters) to managing big data (EHRs, population data-mining, targeting treatment). Part 2 of this post will describe the other side of the conference: business and user perspectives.

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